Ben Christo of Sisters of Mercy Talks Goth Music

Sisters of Mercy guitarist Ben Christo.
Sisters of Mercy guitarist Ben Christo. Photo by Mary Boukouvalas
The Sisters of Mercy is one of the most legendary and enigmatic Goth bands in history, and second probably only to The Cure in most anticipated Goth acts touring the states in 2023. After a trio of genre-defining albums in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the band’s leader, singer Andrew Eldritch, infamously declared he would not put up with the demands of his record label (WEA, now Warner Music Group) any longer.

Since then, the band has been a touring-only outfit. Fans who want to hear new music either have to come to shows or catch homemade recordings on YouTube. We actually did a playlist of them.

It’s been 14 years since Eldritch and company have toured in this country, and they’re scheduled to hit Houston May 26. We caught up with Ben Christo, who has been the guitarist for 16 years and is now the longest serving member of the band outside of Eldritch and the drum machine known as Doktor Avalanche.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Houston Press: So, why has it been so long since you’ve been down here?

Ben Christo: There was never a sense of “we’re not playing there for ages.” It just took up until now for everything now to fall into place.

HP: There’s this story you tell of being hired for the band via fax machine… in the 2000s. Is any other aspect of being in The Sisters of Mercy archaic?

BC: There are some things abut this that are very old school. Andrew’s very much into compartmentalizing things. We all multitask things now, do so many things at the same time, and contact so many people at the same time on one day. He’s very much “one person for one job, one job for one day,” so on show days he doesn’t do interviews. There’s a certain confidence in that most of us don’t have because we’re so afraid we’re going to miss out on something, or that we always need to do everything. That’s something that may be archaic, but it actually better.

HP: Like a lot of Goths, I used to curse Andrew’s name because he wouldn’t release a new album. I’d hear his reasons and think he was full of shit. Now, having talked to members of Bauhaus about how they lost money on new albums and released some on my own, I’m starting to think y’all might have the secret to being a successful band. Does it feel that way to you?

BC: I think sometimes you have to look around at what’s actually happening around you. I’m working a lot this year, I have a lot of shows, that’s very good. I have enough money to pay my rent and not have to do a job I don’t like doing, which is the greatest thing ever. And that’s it. What more could I ask for. There’s not a sense of, “if only we were doing this.” You have to take stock and ask if it’s going well. Yes. I’ve got shelter, food, friends, and I’m making music.

HP: Sisters has such an identity about who they are and what bullshit they are willing to put up with. Is there pressure on y’all to do things differently than how you’re doing them now?

BC: One great quality of Andrew, and we are all making these decisions through him by proxy, is that he’s always been very much “we do what we want to do, and that’s it.” It’s gotten us this far.

Plus, he’s never had to put out an album he didn’t like. He never had to say, “everyone’s doing that nu metal thing now so I should do that,” then look back on it and say, “you remember that terrible shit nu metal rap period we did?” What would have happened if Sisters of Mercy had actually put out an album in 2000? Would he have had to make compromises to what was happening then?

Or conversely, would he have just done what he was already doing and it wouldn’t have been successful because it wouldn’t have gotten the traction or the push? He would have been completely in cahoots with the label because there weren’t any other platforms. Whereas now, you can have your own website and fanbase and not been beholden to the gatekeepers. Back then, if he’d put something out it would have been rejected as not what the label wanted, and he’d either have had to compromise or, more likely, just refused.

HP: How has the writing evolved?

BC: A Swedish reviewer said the new material was a combination of the three albums with a contemporary twist, and I love that. We went out in 2022, and we were playing a set list that was very new song heavy. I was worried about fans. Even though people weren’t familiar with the songs, they loved it because they realized “this sounds like the band I came to see.” If you go see a new James Bond movie, as long as all the things that make it James Bond are in place, you’ll like it even if you’ve never seen that Bond before.

HP: Are fan recordings a good legacy for Sisters? Are y’all going to be the Goth Grateful Dead in a sense?

BC: I think they are. The fidelity is really good. I spoke to a younger fan who was 21 and he told me how much he loved the new songs and listened to them all the time. He made a playlist on YouTube. That’s a brave new world.

HP: As a writer, what are you happiest with as a member of Sisters right now?

BC: There’s two. A song called “On the Bach” and “Eyes of Caligula.” Both of those are times when Von, as we call Andrew, had a lyric and a sort of pattern of how it was going to work in a rough way in his head. He brought it to us, and we built the music around his vision in a way that I would have wanted to hear as a fan of the band.

HP: Andrew has a reputation for being, well, Andrew. Do you enjoy working with him?

BC: It just struck me as you said that. I think a reputation can be built on so little information, especially if you’re someone like him who doesn’t really talk to the press. This picture is built from anything he’s said that’s contrarian, and it’s been built upon and magnified.

He’s incredibly trustworthy and reliable as a friend. Anyone in that circle, he will love you and support you. Anyone outside that circle he can be very scathing towards. I get it. When you’re so well known, what barometer do you use to judge why someone wants to talk to you? Do they like me, or just the projection of me?

He has by sheer necessity for his mental health built this wall. He can’t be best friends with everybody. He just can’t.

HC: Sisters is famous for their esoteric lyrics. When you’re writing, do you ever get any of this actually explained to you?

BC: Sometimes he will tell us. There are things he’s very candid about, like “Eyes of Caligula.” It’s about Margaret Thatcher and the repercussions of that governing epoch. There are other songs, like “On the Beach.” I’ve got an idea of what it’s about, but I don’t really. I like not knowing. If you demystify them, then they sometimes are taken away from you. If you have a song that really meant something to you and helped you through a rough time, and you find the band wrote it as a joke, you’d be like “oh God, what now?”

Andrew said to me once that what he loves about great lyrics is when they’re enigmatically specific. You have a very clear image in a song, but there’s no wider framework to contextualize it. He’ll talk about the light off glasses, the chill in the air, tangible feelings, so you can put yourself in his place.

HP: Do you ever see the band ever exploring music videos again outside of concerts?

BC: If you think about the classic three, like “Dominion,” they’re out in fucking Jordan with horses and stuff. They’re like mini movies. I believe at that time, it was very exciting for people to see that. Now, you can have helicopters and elephants and attacks by aliens and you’ve seen it all before.

I went to see a movie the other day and it had so much more action than I was expecting so I started thinking about whether I should buy some carrots. We’re over-saturating with this caliber of action and imagery. If the Sisters were to do a new music video, and we’re at the top of a volcano, people will compare it to something that's been done.

We’d probably have to do something very simple executed in a very interesting way. I know you miss those videos. I do too, but this belong to another time. You can’t recreate the feeling. It’s like going back to your childhood neighborhood hoping to reconnect, but you just feel more distant.

HP: What can people expect at the show.

BC: It’s going to be a mix of hits, deep cuts, and some new material. It’s the stuff we’re most proud of. Sonically, it will be quite a feast, and visually it’s more arresting and cinematic. It will build and build and build. The last time we played in 2008, I’d only been in the band for a couple of years, and to be honest I didn’t feel very prideful of what we were doing. Now, I do.

The Sisters of Mercy perform Friday, May 26 at the Bayou Music Center, 520 Texas. For more information, visit $59 - $89.
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Jef Rouner (not cis, he/him) is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner